Cincinnati Savored Timothy Kirby’s Shocking Will

One of the city’s wealthiest citizens scandalized (and entertained) the masses for years after he died in 1876.

Timothy Kirby wandered into Cincinnati from Connecticut in the early days of the city, bought a lot of land at good prices, minded his pennies, and died a very wealthy man in 1876. That’s when the fun began.

From “History of Cumminsville” (1914).

Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Kirby’s wife, the predeceased Amelia Metcalf Hare Kirby, gave birth to eight children, of whom four survived long enough to be named in their father’s will. The beneficiaries eagerly anticipated its public reading, as did the curious citizenry. Kirby was fabulously wealthy and owned enough property that whole subdivisions in Cumminsville, Mohawk, Mt. Adams, and Clifton bore his name. When the Probate Court unsealed his last will and testament on January 18, 1876, the Kirby family and, eventually, the readers of Cincinnati’s newspapers, gasped.

It was widely known that Timothy Kirby was, to put it mildly, an eccentric. He once dug a 500-foot-deep well in Cumminsville because he was curious how deep a granite layer might lie. He found no granite but hit natural gas and illuminated the surrounding countryside with a 40-foot flame until he was able to cap the well. He was opposed to European travel—and forbade it in his will—because it took money out of the U.S. He was so opposed to free trade that he disowned a daughter for several years when she married a tariff adversary. Even so, his will went beyond the acceptable bounds of propriety.

Not only did Kirby’s will contain confessions of his own sexual peccadillos and illicit relations across racial taboos, but the document accused his own son of sowing some wild oats as well. The scandal begins on the third page. After listing his son Byron’s acknowledged children, Kirby continued:

“And also counting to share in this devise as his daughter for the purposes of this will Miss Louisa H. Meyers the Camp Washington school teacher and to their descendants and survivors of them and if there should be no survivors then to my legal heirs. The said Louisa H. Meyers to share same as his other children.”

To his family’s dismay, Kirby had just publicly announced that his son had fathered an illegitimate child. Why would he do such a thing? The answer appears nine pages later when Kirby makes several confessions of his own:

“My surviving adopted responsibilities are as follows viz: William S. Tierney, Daydre Tierney, and Timothy K. Tierney, the youngest children of Debbie S. Tierney of Farmington, Minnesota also Annie Potts Stevens eldest daughter of Anna Potts Stevens and also Timothy K. Francis son of Mary Ann Francis. These five children I adopt for the purposes of this Will and acknowledge myself responsible for their support and education in such mode as I may deem appropriate.”

Portrait of Timothy Kirby from “Cincinnati, Past & Present” by James Landy (1872).

Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Kirby then specifies which of his properties will be designated for the support of these children and more or less demands his legitimate offspring to treat these “adopted responsibilities” and their mothers as equals. The Kirby family announced that they had no intention to do any such thing and immediately sued to void the will. When the trial began two years later, the lead attorney for the adopted children attempted to suggest [The Cincinnati Gazette on January 30, 1878] that Kirby had not actually admitted to fathering them illegitimately:

“The law gives men a right to dispose of their property by will. There is no immorality or violation of public policy in providing for the support and education of children otherwise uncared for.”

The family rejected such theories and entered as evidence Timothy Kirby’s own red-hot journals. The Cincinnati Enquirer [February 7, 1878] reprinted several excerpts, laced with dashes where obscene language was censored. Here is Kirby’s entry regarding the married Debbie Tierney:

“She lived in my house below the gate; was young and quite good-looking; tall, straight, red-haired. I was at her house often to collect her rent. She made advances to me, and told me she would do anything for me. She claimed I was the father of her children from Patrick down. … She says she is enceinte by me.”

Before the Tierneys left Cincinnati for Minnesota, Kirby had given Mrs. Tierney almost $4,000.

Mary Ann Francis was perhaps the most famous person in Cumminsville when she wasn’t ensconced in the Workhouse. A dozen or more newspaper articles refer to her as a termagant, and she certainly fit the definition of that word. “Lady Francis” was fond of booze and was a mean drunk, assaulting and insulting her neighbors on Lakeman Street, intimidating Kirby’s family and physically attacking Kirby himself. On one occasion, she broke his arm with a cudgel. Another time she pounced on him as he walked down the street, shoved him to the ground, and took his wallet.

Whenever Lady Francis ended up in jail, Kirby bailed her out. His financial journal indicates he gave her nearly $20,000 from 1871 on. Rumor had it that Lady Francis had purchased a child from some poor woman on the riverfront docks and passed it off as Kirby’s. He claimed in scandalously graphic language that he had witnessed the birth.

Little Annie Potts Stevens raised the family’s eyebrows to the breaking point. Mother Anna Potts Stevens was an African-American prostitute. Although described in Kirby’s journal as “almost white,” she was the fruit of miscegenation, an unforgivable sin in Old Cincinnati.

In the 1870s, Cincinnati was a lot more litigious than today, and most citizens were astute legal analysts. The newspapers hypothesized that Kirby outed his own son and set aside bequests for the City of Cincinnati, the Public Library and the Mercantile Library because those entities would certainly hire lawyers to defend the will and thereby protect Kirby’s bequests while protecting their own. Kirby’s gambit failed when the jury decided, after two weeks of lewd testimony, that Timothy Kirby had lost his mind through improper lust before he’d compiled his will.

The local newspapers, after selling lots and lots of copies because of the scandal, caught a sudden case of piety once the jury ruled against the dirty old man. The Gazette [February 13, 1878] railed against the scarlet women who had polluted Kirby’s mind and sullied his respectable family:

“These adulteresses seek to defame his whole life, to reap the imposture they practiced upon his broken mind. They would make his whole life infamous, and thereby would degrade his children to rob him.”

The Enquirer [February 13, 1878] tut-tutted after weeks of dash-laden sensational reportage:

“We hope, however, that the wretched and nasty affair is ended, and that the unhappy family may be permitted to enjoy the forgetfulness the public will hasten to bestow.”

Ah, but the case did not end there. Kirby’s reputation was besmirched for another year as the Public Library and the Mercantile Library insisted on their share of his estate despite his mental condition and sexual proclivities. In May 1879, the Probate Court finally closed the books on Kirby’s will when the family agreed to donate $15,000 to the Public Library and $5,000 to the Young Men’s Mercantile Library.

Timothy Kirby’s name adorns a street, a school, and other spots in his adopted hometown. It seems he had the last, somewhat ribald, laugh.

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